(Images: Ivan Castro)
Click on the embedded audio below, and you'll hear a 10-minute chunk of ambient sound I taped one night in the old colonial city of La Antigua (literally, "The Old"), Guatemala: centuries-old church bells, popping firecrackers, rumbling mopeds, and a Kakchikel Maya family walking home on ancient cobblestone streets.
[Browser-compatibility note — The audio link in this post appears as embedded Flash. If your web browser doesn't allow you to access Flash, here's a direct MP3 Link. ]
(Audio licensed under a Creative Commons License permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution = remix away.)
I taped this outside my bedroom window there in November, 2006, while in the country working on a series of reports for NPR News. I'd been out in the field all day taping interviews. I was sun-fried, road-weary, hunched over a Marantz digital audio recorder and backing up what I'd taped that day to portable hard drives, ipods, and CDs for redundant safekeeping.
I heard a bunch of loud explosions — pulled off my headphones for a sec — an escalating cluster of pop pop pop, again and again, and the churchbells ringing nonstop. Firecrackers are familiar sounds there, lit for any and every birthday or saint's day, any excuse it seems. But the bells were just going and going and going this time. Some big Catholic holiday? An emergency? Are those guns mixed in with the firecracker sounds? Couldn't figure it out, and neither could the family in whose home I was staying.
Anyway, my NPR mentors always tell me, tape first, ask questions later. So I stuck my mic out the window and hit "record."
When I listen to this recording now, it transports me back. I keep this file in my iTunes playlist and fall asleep to it sometimes. I remember the things that filled my senses while I fell asleep there: warm tortillas cooking over wood fires; copal resin burning in the church next door; cool breezes from nearby pine forests; diesel fumes from overburdened trucks; and the volcan de fuego puffing ash and intermittent red sparks off in the distance.
I hope you enjoy it. I love this old place like you might love a person. This sound reminds me of that.
PHOTOGRAPHS of nighttime Antigua, Guatemala in this post ganked from the flickr stream of Ivan Castro, a prolific and (obviously) very talented photographer based in Guatemala.
Related: Link to an archive of my posts from the road in Guatemala.
Reader comment: Neil Corcoran writes,
Thanks for posting that 10 min sound clip of Antigua.
I spent some time there and loved it very much also, so I enjoy with special interest when you write about Antigua and Guatemala.
I had some good sonic experiences there too.
I think the loud pop noises you couldn't identify are mid-sized ground based fireworks… you can hear the 'sparkle' after the loud pops, especially towards the end of your recording. They remind me very much of the Quemar El Diablo night on December 6th every year… the night before El Virgin de la Concepcion arrives at 4am then next morning Dec. 7th. All that is a lead up to Christmas of course, complete with plenty of fireworks.
In this photo I took of Quemar El Diablo 2005, you can see a man on the right side with a white hat.. he has a large metal tube near him from which he was launching large fireworks.
I suspect that the loud pop noises you heard were something similar, and not guns. They don't sound like guns to me at least. (In the photo notice also that we're in front of a gasolina station! Actually Plaza de la Concepcion is between two gasolina stations.. very very scary to be burning things and shooting fireworks. But hey, life w/o risk leads to quiet desperation, n'est-ce pas?)